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Torpedo Squadron Four - A Cockpit View of World War II - Revised, Updated Edition, 2011

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Air Group 4 - Casablanca to Tokyo

Dedicated to those who
served in VT-4, VB-4, VF-4,
VMF-124 and VMF-213

Suicide Tactics: The Kamikaze During WWII

By Gerald W. Thomas, VT-4

On December 7th of each year the United States celebrates Pearl Harbor Day. This recognition of "a day that will live in infamy" usually results in a number of excellent documentaries and articles about Pearl Harbor and WWII. Many people point out similarities between the shock of December 7, 1941 and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

There are indeed some similarities between these important dates in our history: both events were complete surprises; both events cost many lives; and both events united Americans against an enemy. In WWII, the enemy was easy to define and locate. Not so after 9/11/01. The enemy is now difficult to locate and even more difficult to identify.

There is another similarity with these two wars—fanaticism and suicide tactics. While Japan apparently did not use suicide tactics at Pearl Harbor, we know of their use of the Kamikaze later in the war. One historian stated that by the end of WWII:

  • 7,465 Kamikazes flew to their deaths
  • 120 US ships were sunk, with many more damaged
  • 3,048 allied sailors were killed and anther 6,025 wounded

Although there may be some question about the exact numbers, the damage done by Kamikazes is almost unbelievable. And the losses would have doubled or tripled if the invasion of the Japanese mainland had been required for surrender. All indications are that suicide tactics would have been an important part of the final Japanese defense.

I had three rather personal experiences with suicide bombers in the Pacific. I know something of the fear and panic that is generated when Kamikazes approached our Navy Task Force. I saw our ships' gunners so jittery by the presence of Kamikazes that they fired on our own planes returning from strikes on Japanese targets.

On November 20, 1944, while the Task Force was anchored in Ulithi Lagoon, at least two Japanese mini-subs slipped through the submarine nets and entered the harbor. One of these subs, a Kaiten manned suicide torpedo with a 3418-pound warhead struck the USS Mississinewa, an oil tanker. The ship exploded in flames and soon sank with a loss of 63 sailors and the Japanese pilot.

USS Mississinewa Explodes, 1944 

USS Mississinewa burning after being hit by a Kaiten Kamikaze torpedo in Ulithi Harbor, November 20, 1944.

Dropping Depth Charges, Ulithi, 1944 

Destroyers dropping depth charges in search for Kaiten Kamikaze torpedoes in Ulithi Harbor, November 20, 1944.

Kaiten Kamikaze Torpedo, 1944 

Kaiten suicide torpedo recovered in Ulithi Harbor following Kamikaze attack on November 20, 1944. The front part of the Kaiten is destroyed.

We know now that the Japanese attempted to launch 8 Kaitens in this attack. Two failed to launch, one leaked so badly it couldn´t be used, two were sunk, one exploded without hitting anything, and one just disappeared. The remaining Kaiten struck the Mississinewa. It was reported falsely to the Emperor that this attack sank 3 carriers and 2 battleships.

My closest call from a Kamikaze occurred on November 25, 1944 while aboard the USS Essex. This was a particularly rough day for our Task Force -- we fought off swarms of Kamikazes and had 4 aircraft carriers hit in a one-hour period:

  • The USS Hancock was attacked just as the crew had gone to lunch. An enemy aircraft roared toward the carrier in a suicide dive out of the sun. Antiaircraft fire exploded the plane some 300 feet above the ship, but a section of the fuselage landed amidships and a part of the wing hit the flight deck and burst into flames. The Kamikaze pilot`s name was Isamu Kamitake, flying from the Philippines. Kamitake either did not have a bomb, or he failed to arm it. Otherwise, when his plane exploded there might have been many casualties aboard the Hancock. Kamitake`s body was dumped into the ocean with the rest of his plane after it was checked for intelligence.
     
  • The USS Cabot, near the Hancock, had fought off a particularly viscous attack when one of the Kamikazes, already flaming from AA hits, crashed into the flight deck on the port side. Then a second Kamikaze, also damaged, crashed close aboard and showered the deck with shrapnel and burning debris. Cabot suffered 62 men killed and wounded.
     
  • The USS Intrepid experienced swarms of suicide planes. At 1255, a Zero went into a power stall when about 1000 yards astern, did a wingover from an approximate altitude of 500 feet and rocketed into Intrepid`s deck. The bomb it carried penetrated to the pilot´s Ready Room, which fortunately was empty, but 32 men were killed in an adjoining compartment. The ship´s crew were still fighting fires when two more Zeros attacked. One was splashed at 1500 yards, but the second got through a blizzard of tracers, power stalled, and went into a wingover to crash on the flight deck 4 minutes after the first Kamikaze hit. Six officers and 59 enlisted men were killed or listed as missing as a result of this dual attack.
     
  • The Essex was hit at 1256 hours. As a pilot in Torpedo Squadron Four, I had just returned from a strike on a Japanese Convoy near Santa Cruz in the Philippines. We were launching planes for a second strike on shipping in the Philippines. The flight deck was jammed with planes loaded with bombs and torpedoes.

    I had changed from my flight gear in the Ready Room and moved to the Wardroom for lunch. As I was eating my desert, I could hear the increased intensity of our AA guns as they were firing at the Japanese planes. Suddenly, there was a huge explosion, the paint jumped off the wall, and the room soon filled with smoke. Sixteen men and the Kamikaze pilot lost their lives in the attack. Half of the Essex seamen killed and buried at sea were Black and half were White. But we were lucky. The suicide plane missed the loaded planes in the center of the flight deck and slid along the gun mounts and into the hanger deck on the port side of the Essex.

From post-war research using photos of the Japanese plane, a Yokosuka D4Y3 dive bomber, we have learned the name of the Kamikaze pilot. He was Yoshinori Yamaguchi from the Yoshino Special Attack Corps stationed at Malabacat Field in the Philippines.

Kamikaze Strikes USS Essex, 1944 

The Yokosuka D4Y3 dive bomber piloted by Yoshinori Yamaguchi strikes the USS Essex, November 25, 1944.

Kamikaze Explodes on Essex, 1944 

Yoshinori Yamaguchi's plane explodes in a ball of fire.

Closeup of Kamikaze Yoshinori Yamaguchi's Yokosuka D4Y3 

Closeup of Yoshinori Yamaguchi's plane diving toward the Essex. Note the tail number 17.

USS Essex Gun Mount Damage 

Damage to Essex gun mounts caused by the Kamikaze attack.

USS Essex Flight Deck Damage 

Damage to Essex flight deck.

Burial at Sea on USS Essex, November 25, 1944 

Burial at sea after the Kamikaze attack. Sixteen men lost their lives as a result of this action.

Post war research also turned up another interesting fact about the Kamikazes in this attack. By email from Brazil, I learned that one of the Kamikaze pilots involved on November 25th survived to tell his story. He is now a Karate master in Brazil and goes by the name of Tokyo Mao. Mr. Mao says he started his run toward the Intrepid, but changed his mind and flew toward the Essex at low altitude. He was shot down about 1000 meters from his target ship. Mr. Mao survived the crash, spent several days in the sea, and was rescued by a Japanese freighter. We are attempting to get a more complete accounting of his experiences as one of the few Kamikazes that survived.

My next experience with suicide planes was on the night of March 4, 1945. Our Air Group was in Ulithi Lagoon being loaded on the USS Long Island for return to the States. Since Ulithi was a long way from the nearest active Japanese base, all ships were well-lighted. I was on the flight deck of the Long Island visiting with G. D. "Mak" Makibbin, a fellow torpedo pilot. We were talking about the trip home when we heard two planes overhead. These planes had a different sound—a noise that we did not recognize. We speculated out loud about this new type of plane when one came very close and actually flew into the flight deck of the USS Randolph anchored next to us. There were at least two explosions and a fire. Mak and I ran around the flight deck trying to kick the lights out on the flight deck of the Long Island—anything to prevent a further attack by what was obviously a Kamikaze.

A few minutes after the first plane dived into the Randolph, a second plane dived into the ground on a nearby island—probably mistaking the lights for an aircraft carrier. We learned later that the second plane did not do much damage, but made a sizable hole in the ground.

The Randolph was burning, more explosions followed, sirens sounded, and all ships in the Lagoon were ordered to General Quarters. The Kamikaze had taken the lives of 25 men and severely wounded 106. An examination of the wreckage showed the pilot to have been shackled to the cockpit.

USS Randolph, 1945 

A kamikaze hit the USS Randolph on March 12, 1945. This photo shows the resulting hole in her flight deck.

Again, post-war research provides more information on this last Kamikaze attack. Initially, 24 Ginga twin-engine bombers took off from Minami Daito Shima headed for the US Task Force at Ulithi—a distance of some 800 miles. Due to fuel shortage, navigation errors, and other problems, only two of the original 24 reached their target. The other planes were lost at sea.

As we were returning to the States in May 1945, we were ordered not to mention the word "Kamikaze" or to mention damage caused by these suicide tactics. The Navy did not want US citizens to know the extent of damage, nor did the Navy want the Japanese to know how effective these tactics were. We have similar challenges today.

An interesting aspect of the Kamikaze story, particularly as it relates to "motivation to commit suicide" is in the following post-war report by Higher Flight Officer Motoji Ichikawa:

    "Suddenly the voice of the Officer of the Day broke through the perpetual static of the barracks public address system. ‘All pilots line up in front of headquarters.'

    As soon as they were in formation, the Wing Commander without preamble shouted, ‘All those men who are only children raise your hands.' Puzzled, these men were ordered to return to the barracks. ‘First sons also break ranks and return to your quarters.'

    The Wing Commander ordered the remaining men to form a circle in front of him. He stated that the war news was very bad. ‘We must, therefore, somehow mount an offense that will bring excruciating pain to the enemy. To achieve this, we have developed a new and special instrument of certain death. But, in order for this kind of special attack to succeed, the weapon has been designed as a one-way trip.'

    The Wing Commander then told the pilots they had to choose to take a one-way flight by writing ‘Yes' or ‘No' on their ID card and dropping them in a special box."

Ichikawa was tempted to write ‘No,' but he knew he could not. He knew he would be condemned as unmilitary, as unmanly, if he were to refuse. So he wrote the ‘Yes' on his ID card.

Through a combination of circumstances, Ichikawa survived to tell his story. A logical conclusion to this article is to pose the question, "What can we learn from the Kamikaze experiences of WWII that will help us face the potential for more suicide attacks as a terrorist strategy?"

References


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